Rivera trial: Cristhian Bahena Rivera found guilty of first-degree murder, defense to appeal

Defense attorneys and prosecutors spoke during a press conference on the outcomes of the verdict, both stating that their thoughts are with Mollie Tibbetts’ family.


Cristhian Bahena Rivera stands as the verdict in the trial for the death of Mollie Tibbetts is read on May 28, 2021. Bahena Rivera was found guilty of first-degree murder. (Pool Photo/Associated Press)

Rachel Schilke, Summer Editor

After three years, Cristhian Bahena Rivera was found guilty of first-degree murder on Friday in the abduction and fatal stabbing of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts, who went missing in July 2018 and whose body was found in August 2018.

Sentencing for Bahena Rivera will occur in Montezuma, Iowa, on July 15, 2021. There will be no bond pending sentencing, according to Judge Joel Yates.

Defense attorneys Chad and Jennifer Frese said during a press conference post-verdict that while they are disappointed with the verdict, they respect the jury’s decision and appreciate the time the jury took to deliberate and arrive at a verdict. 

The jury spent three hours in deliberation on Thursday and four hours on Friday.

Both Chad and Jennifer Frese said they will appeal on behalf of Bahena Rivera within 30 days of July 15.

Chad Frese cited their disagreement with Judge Joel Yates on the motion to suppress certain evidence as a reason for their disappointment.

As previously reported by The Daily Iowan, both counsels filed motions in May. Among the prosecution’s motions were to prevent the defense from mentioning anything related to polygraph examinations or the result of such during the trial.

“It’s no secret that we disagreed with Judge Yates’s suppression ruling,” Jennifer Frese said. “We sought discretionary review with the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court denied that.”

Chad Frese said the decision to call Bahena Rivera to testify was not as difficult as people think.

He said this case was difficult from the beginning for the defense because of the evidence against Bahena Rivera: the video surveillance of his vehicle, his admission and leading authorities to the body, and presence of Tibbetts’ DNA in the trunk.

“That’s all pretty incriminating evidence,” Chad Frese said. “From the very first day we met Mr. Bahena, the story he put forth on the stand was exactly the version of the events he told us going back to August 2018. He had never varied from that version of the events, not one detail.”

As previously reported by the DI, Bahena Rivera testified on Wednesday that two masked men with a knife and gun forced him to drive and assist in the abduction of Tibbetts. 

He claims they stabbed her and forced him to bring the body into the cornfield under threats that they would harm his daughter and ex-girlfriend, Iris Monarrez Gamboa, who testified on Tuesday.

“Just the story of Mollie Tibbetts’ abduction was a bizarre story in it of itself. So, what we thought is that whoever told the tale, whatever tale it was, had to sound credible,” Chad Frese said. “The version of the events given by Mr. Bahena, it had to sound credible coming out of his mouth. So we were more concerned about how he appeared to a jury and how he sounded to a jury.”

He added that they did not prepare him to testify, as they wanted him to appear authentic and not coached.

“We just let him tell his story in a very genuine fashion,” he said. “So what you saw from him yesterday is really who he is.” 

Bahena Rivera’s claim over two men has been speculated by the prosecution, the media, and those following the case, which Jennifer Frese acknowledged during the press conference.

“I think there was speculation that we made some sort of, you know, ‘Let’s figure out a story.’ I mean, if we were going to make up something, we would have come up with something better than that,” she said.

Chad Frese added that the motion the defense filed against the prosecution’s request to suppress polygraphs in court speaks to why they were intent on going after one man in particular: Dalton Jack.

“[Dalton Jack] certainly gave us reason to suspect,” he said. “There’s a lot of people in this case whose stories who didn’t check out well enough for us, and that was a problem for us. Can we tell you who did this? No. But we can tell you that getting to know Cristhian Bahena, we are very surprised that he would be the kind of person that would commit a crime like this.”

He described Bahena Rivera as a “soft-spoken, respectful, kind person.”

“Every person we have talked to in the last two and a half years that has had any interaction with this man echoes that,” he said. “He’s been a delight to represent from a legal standpoint. There has been absolutely no problem.”

Jennifer Frese added that Bahena Rivera’s family has been a delight to work with, as well.

“Whenever we meet with the family, we normally have seven or eight people in the room who care for him,” she said. “… We’ll be in touch with them as soon as we leave the courthouse, and it has been a pleasure to work with the Bahena family. I have no unkind things to say about any of them, similarly to how we feel about the Tibbetts family.”

The prosecution delivered statements during the press conference, as well. Poweshiek County Attorney Bart Klaver said the prosecution feels “great” after hearing the verdict.

“This is the verdict that we wanted, it was the verdict the evidence demanded,” Klaver said. “It’s great for all parties that justice was served.”

Prosecutor Scott Brown said after the verdict was read, they spoke to Tibbetts’ family and they were relieved and pleased with the verdict.

He said the case is not about himself or Klaver, but about Tibbetts and her family.

“They are the ones that have to live through this. This is our job, we will be done with this case soon and we’ll move to the next one. That’s what we do,” Brown said. “With the family, and other people that are that close to it, I think you just need to keep in mind that they live with it forever… we hope that in the end, when these cases are over, we can bring a sense of justice to them.” 

Brown said the three core pieces of evidence – video surveillance, Bahena Rivera’s admission, and presence of Tibbetts’ blood – helped the prosecution win the case.

“The big thing was that [Bahena Rivera] knew where the body was,” Klaver said. “That was a big piece to the corroboration of his story.”

Brown said the fact that Bahena Rivera led authorities to the body at 4:30 a.m. on August 21, 2018, was part of the pretrial order that the prosecution could not bring up, until Bahena Rivera took the stand.

He said he was not surprised to see Bahena Rivera take the stand as the evidence was presented over the last 10 days.

“We are always ready for a defendant who would testify, to prepare for it,” Brown said. “We thought, at the beginning, maybe it’s not likely, but as things went on, as things kind of came in, we thought very well for us. Our witnesses did well. We thought it maybe more likely that he takes the stand. We weren’t expecting the story he gave.”

Klaver said if his story from Wednesday had been told to authorities sooner, the officers involved would have conducted more investigation to find the two men Bahena Rivera claimed abducted Tibbetts.

“But that’s something that was omitted from his first version,” Klaver said. “His first version, when he said he had seen Mollie, and all the evidence that was presented at the trial, that was a complete and coherent story. That’s what the investigators followed, and if it had been something different, if the facts had been different, they would have followed those facts.”

Brown added that despite criticism from the defense, he believes police investigators did an efficient job at chasing the leads that were there.

“They were persistent. This is a grueling process for them,” Brown said. “Particularly when the shine of the media is on this case from the very beginning. They were able to do their job despite all that, and just keep looking and just keep trying… it’s not that they are lucky. They are persistent. They should be applauded for getting us to this spot.”